Death of a Sales Agent

Film Trooper

So, is it true? Did a sales agent die?

I don’t mean literally died, like in a fantastical tale of murder or something, but is the position of the film sales agent dying?

Several years ago, I almost had an independent film greenlit.  The cast was in place, the reaction was strong, and the market was ready … then the financial collapse happened and no one in the industry knew what to do or what would happen.

I remember having an option of attending the Screenwriter’s Expo, or waiting and using my limited funds to attend the American Film Market (AFM).

I always felt that by going to the Screenwriter’s Expo, I would be starting at the beginning — trying to peddle my project to one of the various gate keepers that decided my fate.

So, why not skip that step and go directly to the market?

I would get to see first hand what the real buyers were buying.

If anyone who has not attended a film market, it’s an eye opening affair.  There I was peddling my project alongside producers who had a finish film starring Dustin Hoffman. Seriously?  I had an American comedy that I was peddling.  I was told by many sales agents that American comedies don’t play well overseas.  Comic actors like Will Ferrell and Steve Carell don’t have a strong market presence in foreign territories.  Do you know who the biggest comedic star is in the world at that time was?  Rowan Atikson.  Yes, of Mr. Bean and Johnny English fame.  He’s famous worldwide, because he does mostly silent physical comedy.  That translates well in any language.

When I attended the opening symposium, where Jonathan Wolf, President of the Independent Film & Television Alliance (IFTA), who ran the AFM, said point blank, “Don’t premiere your film at a film festival”.

Needless to say there was grumbling in the audience.

Jonathan Wolf was simply saying that film festivals are cultural events for communities.  By premiering your film before the market, it lessens the value.  Now there can be arguments that a solid run at several festivals with awards being presented could be a good thing, but seriously, how many films have you seen with the laurel leaves symbol on them, stating that they won this award or that award — but when you look closer, it’s from a festival you never heard of before.  So, it sort of cheapens the film product, right?

The whole experience caused me to look at films from a strictly business perspective.  Duh.

Isn’t that the goal for most independent filmmakers?  To find a way to make their films and make a living from it.  And I’m not talking about getting rich, but just having a comfortable living to do their work.  Haha.  But alas, that’s what everyone desires, right?  Isn’t that the ultimate American Dream?  To make a comfortable living doing what you love to do. Could this be done?  And how?

The whole industry has been in a upheaval for years and from a business perspective it is one of the most foolish professions to get into … but then again, if you look closely, any industry has its risks.  Opening a restaurant, getting into real estate investing, etc.- they all have their risks.  No, there has to be a way!

From my perspective, majority of the sales agents, acquisition directors, and the gate keepers to the distribution companies … they were all kind of like used car salesmen.   But that’s not the case for all of them.  I did meet a lovely woman who was an acquisition person for a distribution company in Singapore.  Tragically, she would pass away soon after we had met at AFM.  Sad, I know.  Tragedies like these put a human face on what can feel like an industry of phoniness at times.

Anyway, back to the lighter side of the blog.  So, there they were, all these sales agents and acquisitions people; they could have been selling and brokering anything, but it just so happened to be films.  When I took a step back and got out of the bubble, I wanted to see how this all looks from the perspective of basic business—especially how online businesses worked (after all, we knew that’s where everything would end up). I had to simplify what I was seeing.

 

BASIC BUSINESS:

1. You’re either selling goods or providing a service (I’ve been providing a service for years as a video production artist, editor, manager, etc. I wanted to sell goods now. And the goods would be films that I made.)

2. Your goods or service must provide a solution to a customer’s problem (Providing a post production service was easy, because there were customers who had a production problem that needed to be filled.  But what sort of problem does a single feature film provide?  Is it just simple entertainment or escapism?)

3. Your customer must be aware that your good or service exists for them to pursue (This is why marketing and sales goes hand-in-hand with business basics)

4. Your customer must be able to acquire your good or service through some sort of distribution process (If you’re providing a service, your referral network might become your distribution of service, but if you have a film product, then you need shelf space to distribute it … Haha, that was the old brick and mortar ways of business. The internet has changed all that, right?)

 

So, there you go … the basic rules of business.  Have a good/service (supply), have customers who want your good/service (demand), make them aware of your good/service (sales & marketing), and have a means to get it to them (distribution).  Now if you can plug your film into those rules, how would the ever changing landscape of the internet play into all of this?

It wasn’t too long ago that the biggest barrier for filmmakers was access and means to make a movie.  With the latest digital tools, that is no longer a barrier.  Hell, I made a feature film for $500 with no crew!  If you want to see if it sucks or not, here’s the link:  www.thecubemovie.com.

Anyway, the next barrier was the ability to sell and distribute your film.

The film sales agent have been gate keepers to distribution companies, and distribution companies have been gate keepers to the audience.  However, the world wide web has broken down that barrier, allowing filmmakers to bring their work directly to audiences.

Now, we know that iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, and now Vimeo On Demand offer a method for audiences to find and buy film products.   Sheri Candler, Independent Film Marketer, asked a question on Twitter, “If physical media no longer exists, what will distributors distribute?” (I couldn’t remember the exact wording, but that was the gist of it) So, do indie filmmakers still need distribution companies?

And that brings me back to my original post’s title: Death of a sales agent.

When I contacted Distribber, an online aggregator that provides a service to filmmakers who want to get their films onto iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, etc. — I asked, “If indie filmmakers can go to these digital media outlets directly, what will happen to the middle man?  What will be the role of sales agents?” Distribber’s response?  “Things were changing and changing fast.”

Death of a sales agent. A rewrite of Tennessee Williams’ play may be in order.

What do you think?  What will the role of the film sales agent be if there is no physical product to distribute?  Leave a comment below.


 

Don’t go away empty handed … grab yourself a FREE GEAR GUIDE on all the equipment that I used to make a feature film with no crew.

Gear_Guide_Book_Cover

mm

About 

Scott McMahon is a Fellow Film Trooper at Film Trooper, a website for helping filmmakers attain filmmaking freedom. Scott recently made a feature film for $500 with no crew called, The Cube. Want to know what equipment was used to make that film? Grab a FREE gift at www.FREEGEARGUIDE.com

  • Hi Scott,

    Great post (sorry I’m so late to the party, but your twitter feed just popped this up.)

    I like the clarity and simplicity with which you break down the basic business (though, philosophically, I’d say that a product doesn’t have to solve a problem, it only has to meet a need, and there is (and will always be) a need for communal storytelling because that’s what creates and sustains our identities. But I quibble.)

    This is an area that fascinates me, because technology is changing the landscape faster than our systems can keep up, and so it seems like every time someone builds a structure to monetize online sales, that structure is destroyed by some new technology/app/website/viewing device.

    Here’s the question that drives me: given that we can circumvent the traditional distributors by going through aggregator services, or circumvent EVERYONE and show our work directly to our audiences by posting to a VimeoPro account, using YouTube, etc., aren’t we just replacing the “distribution” problem with a “marketing” problem?

    For example, twenty years ago, my short films couldn’t be seen by anyone because I couldn’t get them onto a cinema screen for people to see. Now I can make my shorts see-able, but I have the different problem of getting people to know that they’re available.

    And, as I see it, the problem with Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, etc. is that I’m not just competing against the films made this year, I’m competing against almost all of the shorts that have ever been made. So I could watch The Cube – I could also re-watch Casablanca, or Gone With The Wind, or Chinatown, or Galaxy Quest.

    So how do we get our films to stand out amidst all that competition? It’s almost as if the boxing federations did away with all weight classes and said “You want direct contact? Fine, everyone competes with everyone.” And so the lightweights (like me) compete directly against the heavyweights (like Sony Pictures) and I’m going to lose. Unless, of course, I have some film festival wins, or a theatrical release, or some other kind of “established” recognition and credibility to make my film stand out within the crowd – and now we’re back to the need for some kind of middleman (whether that’s a traditional sales agent or someone playing a modified role).

    Because our time is valuable, and people don’t want to waste it on something that won’t pay off. (I know I certainly don’t.)

  • Hi Adam,
    Thanks so much for taking the time to read the article and leaving a thoughtful comment.

    Yes … To answer your question. Haha.

    It is true that film production is no longer a barrier. Anyone can make a film.

    It is true that film distribution is no longer a barrier. Anyone can sell their film to the world.

    So, that does leave film marketing as the last barrier.

    I think two areas that will become the new frontier for indie filmmakers on a whole, is learning how to build a loyal fan base (The 1,000 true fans concept) and learning how to market to only those “true fans”.

    I created Film Trooper to explore these areas. I’ve been studying the practices of online entrepreneurs for several years now, and want to share their techniques with the indie filmmaking community in an attempt to crack this barrier of marketing and audience building.

    Here’s something to think about …

    Right now, a lot financing for independent film is predicated on what the foreign film buyers are willing to pay for a product. Indie film producers will take this promise note (the pre-sale) and match it with a bank loan.

    But as Netflix opens their streaming service to countries worldwide …

    What the hell happens to the role of the foreign distributor? Talk about a Death of a Sales Agent!

    So, funding for traditional independent films will implode. Just like Spielberg and Lucas had announced a few months ago.

    Those indie filmmakers who can adapt and learn the necessary skill-set of audience building and marketing themselves online will succeed. That is what I hope to give back to the indie film community … is to use Film Trooper as a resource of showing how filmmakers are successfully building their “true fans” and how they market to them directly online.

    Sorry for the long-winded reply …

    But, here’s one outlook that many successful online entrepreneurs view the world …

    Abundance. They would see that the over supply of film product as a good sign that customers still crave that a film product. Just as you had mentioned in your comment.

    A scarcity mindset always leads to jealousy, cynicism … The indie film world is full of cynicism, that’s for sure. The world of entrepreneurs is a community full of positive “abundance” mindset individuals.

    Can THE CUBE compete with Sony’s Spider-Man? Hell no. So, I look at ways to market it differently than what the major studios offer. Also, I have very realistic expectations on what THE CUBE can earn, so that helps temper what I deem as a success … or lack of. Haha.

    Anyway, thanks again for engaging in the conversation with me.

  • I enjoyed the trailer! I’ve done this many times – here’s the latest, “No Trespassing” Budget less than $2,000.00
    https://www.amazon.com/No-Trespassing-Mark-Valeriano/dp/B074NBX296/ref=sr_1_1?s=instant-video&ie=UTF8&qid=1504035643&sr=1-1&keywords=no+trespassing — Thanks for the article! Bobby Bragg